WSAZ determined | Campaign with tax money

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Treasury Secretary Dave Hardy have been touring the state for weeks while State Senate leaders conduct interviews and send out press releases — all about why you should vote for or against Amendment Two.

If passed, the amendment would give lawmakers the power to eliminate certain taxes that help fund local government, including road taxes and other corporate taxes.

The governor and local officials say — without money from those taxes — there could be cuts in emergency services and other services.

Senate leaders claim cutting those taxes will create jobs — and the state would match the lost money to local government.

Both sides – using taxpayers’ money – to influence your vote.

It recently happened in South Charleston.

“A vote for Amendment 2 means you give your guaranteed earnings to the West Virginia Legislature forever,” Hardy told attendees.

The Treasury Secretary said those words in front of a taxpayer-funded fire truck and next to a sign urging residents to vote “no.”

That’s just one of more than 20 stops on the governor’s nationwide campaign tour against Amendment 2 — using local government resources along the way.

Similar actions were taken in support of the action.

On a smaller scale, Senate President Craig Blair has used his taxpayer-funded communications office to send out press releases with headlines disputing the governor’s claims and advocating passage of Amendment Two.

But WSAZ wanted to know, is it ethical?

WSAZ investigative/political reporter Curtis Johnson contacted the state Ethics Committee, and although they declined his request to speak on camera, the staff referred him for a statement on the very subject.

The August 4, 2022 Opinion was based on two Opinions from around 10 years ago – both drafted by Jonathan Turak, then Acting Chair of the Commission.

Johnson was no longer on the ethics committee and approached Turak for perspective.

“Obviously, as a taxpayer, you don’t want to see your taxes being used to represent one public policy position or another, especially if you have a different view of what that public policy should be,” Turak said.

But Moundsville attorney W.Va. said the answer is more complex.

For example, the Aug. 4 ethics review gave school systems sweeping powers to use taxpayers’ money to lobby for or against Amendment 4, a referendum limited to the independence of the state board of education.

But the same ethics reviews have found that county school systems cannot use taxpayer dollars to advocate for or against Amendment Two.

The reason – the passage or failure of Amendment 2 could have a direct impact on the money available to pay school salaries, while Amendment 4 was only about politics.

The Opinion was limited to county school systems, but the funding associated with Amendment 2 also affects cities and counties.

So Johnson asked Turak about the use of the South Charleston fire engine, as well as the use of a Kanawha County ambulance and a sheriff’s cruiser at a previous event.

“So the concern about school salaries would also extend to cities and counties,” Johnson asked.

“Yes,” Turak replied. “As such, that opinion could absolutely be applied to those situations.”

“But there’s a lot of gray in there, isn’t there?” Johnson asked.

“Sometimes it’s not so clear,” Turak explained. “I would say so. But yes, it is a balance. It’s often a balance. How direct can you make that connection.”

This connection is not as direct with state resources, leading Turak to believe that the actions of the governor and Senate leaders would be permissible under the state ethics law.

But even then, Turak says, the Aug. 4 statement makes every agency take notice — be careful with spending.

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